THE PRE-CONFLAGRATION RAPTURE: An Early Medieval Eschatological Position and Its Relation to the History of Pretribulationism in the program booklet as “Thomas Aquinas on the Rapture” by FRANCIS GUMERLOCK of SAINT LOUIS UNIVERSITY 54TH ANNUAL MEETING OF THE EVANGELICAL THEOLOGICAL SOCIETY REGAL CONSTELLATION HOTEL TORONTO, ONTARIO NOVEMBER 20-22, 2002 1.
INTRODUCTION Pretribulationism is a view held by many evangelicals which says that when God pours out His wrath upon the world at the end of time, His people will be unharmed. The means by which God will deliver His people is the rapture, when the dead in Christ shall rise, and living saints are caught up to meet Christ in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
THE HISTORY OF PRETRIBULATIONISM Although almost twenty centuries of history have passed since Christianity’s beginnings, some treatments of the history of pretribulationism cover less than two centuries. They usually start in the early nineteenth century and work their way to the present. Either John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) or Margaret Macdonald, both from the British Isles, are portrayed as the founders of the belief that the rapture will take place before the Tribulation.1 After discussing pretribulationism’s beginnings, its spread to North America is traced through Darby’s visits to the States, various prophecy conferences,2 the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible,3 and the success of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series.
advocates, on the other hand, finding pretribulationism in church history before the nineteenth century them of the charge of embracing a novel doctrine, and fortifies them in the belief that pretribulationism is truly the faith of the fathers.4 The theological controversy has shown that many people remain unconvinced by claims that pretribulationism is entirely novel and was simply pulled out of thin air in the 1820’s. As a result, persons from various theological traditions have engaged themselves in examining Christian literature prior to the nineteenth century. The intention is to bring information from the Christianity’s past that will inform people in the present about the historical development of concepts related to pretribulationism. Their research has elucidated fascinating parallels with elements of pretribulationism in the writings of several famous seventeenth and eighteenth century theologians. These include Joseph Mede,5 Increase Mather,6 Cotton Mather,7 John Gill,8 and Morgan Edwards.9 Finds like these over the past two decades have added much needed breadth to the history of pretribulationism. CAN ANYTHING GOOD COME FROM MEDIEVAL CHRISTIANITY? These finds of parallels with pretribulationism in earlier Protestantism are fine and well, but what can Catholicism of the dark ages possibly contribute to the history of pretribulationism? Several factors may lead one to think, “Not very much.” First, by the fifth century, most exegetes of the Book of Revelation had discarded a futuristic view of the Apocalypse for a more ecclesiastical view.10 They did not see the visions of chapters 4.
between the rapture and the revelation.16 Fifth and finally, based on Revelation 12, many believed that Michael the Archangel, not Jesus, would come down from heaven and kill the Antichrist.17 This left no need for the saints to return to earth once they are raptured. There is no need for them to return to populate the earth in the millennium, because there is no millennium. There is no need to come back with Christ to kill the Antichrist, since Michael will do this. The saints do not even need to come back to earth with Christ for the Last Judgment, because in their minds the Last Judgment will take place in the air above the earth.18 With these major presuppositional differences between early medieval eschatology and modern pretribulationism, it is no wonder that medieval Christianity has largely been passed over in the histories. RAPTURE THEOLOGY EAST AND WEST One aspect of early medieval eschatology, however, that directly relates to the history of pretribulationism is the purpose for which the rapture exists. That the Christians alive at the End of the world would be caught up in the clouds to meet Christ in the air, everyone acknowledged, for the prophets, Christ, and the Apostles had taught it.19 But why will people at the End of the world be caught up to meet Christ in the air? Eastern and Western Christians of the early middle ages answered this question differently. 6.
Eastern Christians, when discussing the purpose of the rapture, tended to emphasise honor. John Chrysostom (d. 409), for example, likened the rapture to two examples of honorific events in ancient daily life. The rapture, he preached to his congregation at Constantinople, is similar to when an ancient king was traveling to a city.20 Those who held positions of honor in the munipality would go out to welcome the king before his arrival into the city proper. Or the rapture, he said, was similar to when an affectionate father was coming back from a long journey. His children, or those worthy to be his children, would have the honor of getting in a chariot and going out to meet him and kiss him.21 According to Eastern understanding, God’s purpose for the rapture was to honor His people by allowing them to ride the clouds as a chariot, as Christ would descend from heaven. While Western theologians certainly did not deny that believers will be honored in the rapture, they tended to emphasize another purpose for the rapture. For them one of its main purposes was to escape God’s judgment when it is poured out upon unbelievers at the end of the world. This judgment, however, was not depicted in terms of the vials, bowls, and trumpets of the Book of Revelation as it is in modern pretribulationism. This judgment would come in the form of “the greatest and highest fire” ever—the grand conflagration.22 This, they said, the Apostle Peter taught in 2 Peter 3:10 writing, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.” Based on passages in the Psalms, they believed that this fire would directly 7.
precede Christ’s Second Coming, as it is written, “Fire devours before Him” (Ps. 50:3-5) and “Fire goes before Him and burns up His adversaries round about” (Ps 97:3).23 RISING ABOVE THE FIRE For Western Christians, therefore, one of the main purposes of the rapture was to remove the elect so that they would not be burned in the conflagration. Hilary of Poitiers (d. 368) illustrated this, speaking of the rapture as a separation between believers and unbelievers, which “when God’s wrath is kindled, the saints shall be gathered into His garner, and the unbelievers shall be left as fuel for the fire from heaven.” Paschasius Radbertus (d. 865), carrying Hilary’s thought into the Carolingian era, taught similarly.
the Life of St. Brendan also recorded the concept of divine protection from the conflagration through the rapture. It said that as the ark of Noah was lifted over the waves, so God “will raise up his monks and his household on high over the Fire of Doom, so that neither smoke nor mist nor spark will hurt them.”27 The Venerable Bede (d. 735) also vividly illustrated how early medieval Western Christians associated the rapture with salvation from the conflagration. Contrasting those who will be left behind and surrounded by fire with those who will be caught up above the earth to meet Christ, he writes, For it stands that when the Lord descends for the judgment “in the twinkling of an eye” (I Cor 15:52), and the celebrated judgment of all of the dead will take place, the saints are immediately caught up to meet Him in the air. For this is understood, as the apostle indicates when he says, “Then the Lord Himself with a command and with the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God will descend from heaven, and the dead who are in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who remain, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess 4:15-16). However, it is asked whether the reprobate will then be sublimely lifted up to meet the coming Judge, or whether they will be weighed down with the merits of sins, so that although having immortal bodies, they will be unable to be elevated to higher places . . . But then if that greatest and highest fire will cover the whole surface of the earth, and the unjust, raised from the dead, will be unable to be caught up into heaven, it stands that those positioned on earth will await the sentence of the Judge surrounded by fire.28 Bede then distinguished the fire of the conflagration from the fire of eternal hell into which those left behind eventually would be cast. It was not uncommon for theologians of the period to make a point of distinguishing the various fires related to the eschaton.29 Bruno the Carthusian (d. 1101) did so in his commentary on Psalm 50:3, in which he also spoke of preservation of the saints from the conflagration by means of the rapture. He wrote, 9.
Appearing in majesty, He [Christ] will take vengeance upon those who shall neglect His first coming in humility. But how He will take vengeance is explained in this way: truly “He will not be silent;” for fire will burn the elements in His sight, that is, in His presence. However, it should be asked whether this fire will be that eternal fire in which afterward the impious will be tortured without end? Peter affirmed that in the resurrection of the dead, this fire will reach the heights of the air as far as the Flood ascended (2 Peter 3:10-12). By this fire all the pollution of the air will be expiated. And through this fire the bodies of the faithful, joined with their souls just as they are now, with the greatest swiftness and without harm will hasten to meet the Lord in the air for judgment. Accordingly, Paul wrote, “We shall be caught up to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess 4:17). But the impious, with the bulk of the weight of their sins bringing much harm on themselves, will go forth to judgment and be sent into the torment of everlasting fire.30 THE QUESTION OF TIMING Since modern pretribulationism portrays those left behind on earth at the rapture as suffering the judgment of God on earth for seven years, the question of timing must be raised. For early medieval writers, how long would unbelievers be left behind on earth before the Last Judgment, at which time they will be relegated to hell for eternity? That some time is involved is clear from at least one writer of the period. Haymo taught, Only the just will go out to meet the Lord, carried in the air by angels, just as in another place the same apostle says, ‘We shall be caught up to meet Christ in the air’ (1 Thess 4:17). But the impious will remain on earth until the time when they hear that terrible sentence of the Judge: ‘Go ye, cursed, into eternal fire’ (Matt 25:41)31 By saying “until the time” (quousque in Latin), Haymo acknowledged that the impious will be on earth for a length of time, but he did not specify its duration. Indication of its length can only be gathered from early medieval descriptions of the activities in which those left behind on earth will be engaged. Venantius Fortunatus (d. 610) wrote that those not caught up in the clouds to meet Christ will call upon the rocks to cover them (cf. Rev 6:15-16),32 and Haymo says that those left behind will see their enemies (the 10.